Demetrius "DJ" Turner II: Hope For The Future
“ Every musician has to do their part to keep this music alive. ”
We've all heard comments about jazz being "the music of old men," and an art form with a questionable future. Then along comes young Demetrius "DJ" Turner II, whose performances have garnered the admiration of thousands, before he's even old enough to drive a car! Jazz enthusiasts lucky enough to hear him play such old school classics as "Take Five," "'Round Midnight," and "Georgia On My Mind" frequently comment that "he doesn't play like a kidhe plays like a man!" Turner's prodigious talent and demonstrated commitment should give everyone reason to have confidence in the future of jazz.
As is the case with many extraordinary musicians, Turner began his journey into the music world at an early age. Turner received his first saxophone (as a present for his tenth birthday) from his grandfather, Vewiser J. Turner Sr., who was himself a top jazz musician in Houston, Texas. This gift was of particular significance to Turner, because his beloved grandfather had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
"I was very close to my grandfather," says Turner, "Every time I would go down to Houston, I'd bring my saxophone, and we'd play together. He took me to one of his recording [sessions] and I actually played in it...and got a solo, when I was about twelve.
"I first started playing an instrument in elementary school," Turner concludes. I came in late to the [first] class, and they had already given out all the saxophones. But since I had the sax my grandfather had given me, the teacher let me go ahead and start training with the saxophone."
Turner immersed himself in learning to play his new instrument, and just three years later he performed in front of an audience of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. It was the opening game of the season for the New York Knicks basketball team. Part of the pre-game entertainment was a children's talent contest. At age thirteen, in front of a large crowd that could have intimidated many professional musicians, Turner performed confidently and won First Place in the competition.
That same year (2005), Turner also played at the Apollo Theater, winning yet another talent contest at the very venue which also launched the careers of James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. "I felt a little scared then," Turner explains. "I went on after this kid that was a dancer. When I got to the microphone, I just closed my eyes and waited. I started playing, and the background musicians were playing with me. The audience was applauding like crazy. It was an amazing night." Turner's meteoric thirteenth year of life also included a performance at the United Nations in New York City.
Turner playing to children as part of the Vewiser Turner Sr. Youth Jazz Educational Foundation
In 2006, Turner became the youngest recipient ever of the John Coltrane Scholarship Award, and received the Musical Excellence Award from the National Organization for the Arts. One highlight from 2007 was his performance at a fundraiser for the Marian Wright-Edelman (Children's Defense Fund) Library which was attended by Senator Hillary Clinton. He also performed that year at the National Association for Home Care & Hospice's 20th Annual Caring Awards in Washington, DC, in front of an audience that included Senator Robert Dole. In April 2007, Turner was called "the most sought after young jazz entertainer in the Delaware Valley" by The Delaware Chapter of The National Organization for the Arts.
At age fifteen, Turner continues to "wow" large audiences. Recently, he entertained a crowd of thousands when he provided the opening music for Senator Barack Obama's Presidential campaign rally in Wilmington, Delaware. Senator Obama himself commented, "I loved the music!" Senator Obama is not alone in that sentiment. Often, at the completion of one of Turner's performances, before he even leaves the venue, someone in the crowd will request contact information to book Turner for a future gig.
Although Turner outwardly exudes confidence even when performing before huge crowds, he admits that the experience can be somewhat stressful. "I was very excited for Madison Square Garden and the Apollo Theater," he states. "But when I played at the Obama rally, we were getting started, we were testing, and everyone started crowding around and I was getting nervous. It's like I lose confidence in myself when I'm doing that. I don't know why...I don't know how the crowd is gonna react...yeah, more opinions out there than with a smaller audience. It's easier to get along with a smaller audience."
Nevertheless, Turner's impressive performance at the Obama rally resulted in a subsequent performance by Turner and his band, Jumpin' Off A Clef, at a Barack Obama fundraiser in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Jumpin' Off A Clef also features Ben Sutin (fifteen) on electric violin and keyboards, Justin Faulkner (sixteen) on drums, James Santangelo, Jr. (sixteen) on keyboards, and Erik Kramer (seventeen) on bass. "We play together in Philadelphia, New Jersey, pretty much all over," Turner says, "and sometimes we arrange songs together, try to make new songs together. [W]e just play together, jam together, try to think of new ideas, to feed off each other."
The members of Jumpin Off a Clef met at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts. It was there that Turner's playing really started to take off, after he began taking lessons from Lovett Hines and Ray Wright, both top music educators in the Philadelphia area.
Regarding his practice regimen, Turner explains, "I practice mostly everyday. I practice for about two to three hours. And I try to get a focused practice in every time. I play saxophone and flute, so I have to give enough time to my saxophone, my flute, and my piano, too." Learning the piano, he says, has helped him immeasurably with learning chord changes and in composing new songs. "Ray Wright taught me that I have to have a 'thoughtful practice.' [Y]ou don't just practice songs all day, you have to practice your scales, breathing technique, styles of improvising...basically practice with a purpose."
Asked about which musicians had been most influential in his music, Turner quickly responded "[M]y grandfather. I take a lot of influence from him. And my teacher, Ray Wright, who's really into jazz." Also mentioned were Philadelphia vibes player Richard Adderly, and Philly saxophonists Sam Reed and Odean Pope (Pope was saxophonist with the Max Roach Quartet and Double Quartet for 23 years). "I've played with Odean Pope. He's a great jazz musician. And he's helped me a lot. He's given me some ideas to play. And I heard Herbie Hancock and I met him, and he talked to me a little bit. And I also met Kenny Garrett."
Of course, Turner is also influenced by the music he hears. "I listen to a lot of jazz albums," he says. "I don't know if I can say I have a favorite. I listen to jazz fusion, some smooth jazz, free jazz, all sorts of stuff. Most of my CDs are saxophone and flute players. That's what I listen to a lot of times, especially before a gig. I try to gain some ideas from the players I'm listening to, right before a gig. I hope that helps me in my performance. Yeah, I use licks from Charlie Parker, from David Sanborn and Kenny Garrett. And, well, I use licks from a whole lot of people like Najee and Gerald Albright."
Although Turner stays very busy with school, practicing, and performing, he still finds time to give back to his community and to the jazz world in general. Turner and his family formed the Vewiser Turner Sr. Youth Jazz Educational Foundation, named for Turner's grandfather, to help introduce the youngest members of our society to the jazz art form.
"I go to daycare centers, youth groups, etc., and play for the children," Turner explains. "And sometimes we bring a recorder [instrument] and let them play on that, and try to experience it. Sometimes we bring drums and let them keep beats. I've seen kids' expressions on their faces, and it seemed like they loved it. And it seemed like something they'd want to do too. So I think it's pretty successful. I'm hoping that through my foundation and bringing jazz to kids, I can help jazz become more popular again in the U.S. Every musician has to do their part to keep this music alive."
Turner is certainly doing his part. And, hopefully he is the prototype for a whole new generation of jazz performers. The jazz world desperately needs young jazz musicians like Demetrius "DJ" Turner IIperformers who not only possess exceptional musical talent, but who also take personal responsibility for making an impact on the future of jazz.
Top Two Photos: Noah Turner, Vewiser Turner Sr. Youth Jazz Educational Foundation
Bottom Photo: Eric Mencher, The Philadelphia Inquirer
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